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Dodge the crowds at Italy's most famous sights

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By Rick Steves
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Travelers to Italy need to be smart to avoid needless lines and expenses while enjoying its ever-popular treasures. Major sights in Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan are evolving for 2009.

You can now take an elevator to the top of Rome's grandiose Victor Emmanuel Monument for 360-degree views of the city.

You can now take an elevator to the top of Rome's grandiose Victor Emmanuel Monument for 360-degree views of the city.

Rome, the Eternal City, can be eternally exhausting to sightseers with old information. The Vatican Museum, with the Sistine Chapel, is now open longer hours (8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. most days), so its notoriously long lines should be a little more merciful. And now you can book tickets online. (There's about a $5 booking fee per ticket.)

The Roman Forum is no longer free. It's now included in a combo ticket (about $14, good for two days) that also covers Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Palatine Hill, which strikes many visitors as a pile of old rocks, now features several recently restored rooms of the House of Augustus and a chance to see splendid ancient frescoes. As only five people are allowed into the fresco room at a time, expect a 15- to 30-minute wait.

The new Museum of the Imperial Forums, near Piazza Venezia, holds discoveries from the forums of Trajan, Caesar, Augustus and Nerva -- each emperor built over the works of his predecessor. It sounds important, but doesn't make my must-see list of Rome's ancient attractions.

Rather than looking up at the much-maligned Victor Emmanuel Monument, tourists can take the new "Rome from the Sky" elevator to its rooftop to enjoy a grand 360-degree view. Your bonus: From its roof you see everything in town, except this pompous, oversized monument -- nicknamed "the typewriter" and "the wedding cake."

Florence, improving its crowd management, now has a Web site for its top art museums. Tickets for the Uffizi Gallery (Renaissance art) and Accademia (Michelangelo's David) can be purchased online with about a $5 booking fee per ticket. And most hoteliers will still book Uffizi tickets as a service to their guests (either for free or a small fee).

To get to the top of Florence's cathedral dome, you face a congested climb inside the dome-within-a-dome structure. The line moves slowly, quarters are tight, and the people you'll squeeze by need a shower. You'll enjoy a better view that includes the dome itself, often with fewer crowds, from the top of the adjacent Giotto's Tower.

Santa Croce Church, with tombs and memorials that make it a kind of Renaissance hall of fame, is very popular. To avoid its lines, you can buy your ticket at the leather school around the back and enter the church from there.

Florence's Science Museum, providing vivid proof that the Renaissance involved more than the visual arts, should re-open after extensive renovation work this summer. Until then, you may find a few choice exhibits, including Galileo's telescope and his finger, in temporary rooms in the basement.

Venice seems as crowded and greedy as ever. Vaporetto (water bus) tickets for a ride down the Grand Canal now cost nearly $10. The only way to visit the Doge's Palace, the city's top sight, is to buy a museum pass, which includes the less-visited Correr Museum. While it's a scheme to make people heading only for the Doge's Palace pay to see two places, the advantage is that you can buy the pass at the nearby Correr Museum, which never has crowds, and then walk directly into the Doge's Palace without a wait.

Venice has banned pigeon feeding on St. Mark's Square, saying the pigeons are a health hazard and contribute to degradation of the city's monuments. Enjoying what was once perhaps the city's best, cheap form of entertainment (about $1.40 for plenty of seed) could now net you a $70 to $700 fine.

You can skip the lines at the Accademia, Venice's finest art museum, by making reservations for an entry time at least a day in advance (easier by phone at 011-39-041-520-0345 than online at their clunky Web site, www.gallerieaccademia.org).

Milan's underrated yet impressive Duomo Museum should re-open in 2009, following an extensive restoration project. The Milan train station will remain a construction zone through 2009, so be prepared for the baggage check, tourist information office and other services to be tucked into temporary quarters at the station.

To get a deeply discounted ticket at Milan's La Scala Opera House, show up at 1 p.m. to put your name on a list, then return at 5:30 p.m. in the hopes of getting a voucher, which you'll then show at the ticket window to purchase a ticket.

Thanks to "The Da Vinci Code," tickets to see Leonardo's "Last Supper" at Santa Maria delle Grazie church need to be booked a month or more in advance. You can reserve online at www.cenacolovinciano.it, but you'll have more options for dates and times if you call the booking office at 011-39-028-942-1146.

Italy, even with its high prices and long lines, is worth the trouble.

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